Truman Capote once said, “To me, the greatest pleasure of writing is not what it's about, but the inner music the words make.” With Ko’olau, A True Story of Kaua’i, writer and director Tom Lee boldly strives to express this sentiment, in a play mainly without words. Not that there isn’t a big story to tell; the Hawaiian legend of Kaluaiko’olau (or Ko’olau) and his rebellion and escape from a forced separation from his family and threat of being deported to a leper colony in 1890s Kauai, is necessarily provided in the program. But this incarnation of the dramatic tale is all about showing rather than telling, using wheeled puppetry, live shadow and video projection, sporadic voice-over, and original live musical accompaniment, in the hopes of releasing the largely tragic story’s inner music and inspiration. The only problem is that if the viewer is not acutely aware of the facts or key details, its impact could be easily missed or misunderstood. It’s also unusual not to hear directly from the main title character in such an individualistic piece, and as taken from the original oral account in Hawaiian language by Ko’olau’s wife Pi’ilani, we’re admittedly seeing her story (which then might have then begged the title, The True Story of Pi’ilani). Not that we hear her words either, which might have been interesting had they been somehow woven in amongst all the other layered elements (and considering that her retelling was recorded by an American journalist in 1906). However, the theatrical elements chosen to communicate Pi’ilani’s testimony in a form beyond the traditional are well integrated and artistically executed, if still removed from a first-person’s perspective.
But if Pi’ilani’s voice itself isn’t heard, it’s nonetheless elevated and celebrated through the original music of La MaMa composer/musicians Yukio Tsuji and Bill Ruyle, who provide the perfect accompaniment. Their evocative compositions serve as the underlying language of the piece, using a combination of traditional instruments, unique percussives for sound effects and atmosphere, and the poignant sounds of instruments like the shakuhachi and hammer dulcimer. And to further honor tradition, certain musical sections were even inspired by the compositions of Queen Liliuokalani, Hawaii’s last reigning monarch.
The use of Japanese kuruma ningyo wheeled puppetry is quite elegant, with the performers working the puppets with such careful, focused attention that they become almost invisible while in plain sight. The gentle, nuanced manipulations of the puppeteers Matt Acheson, Marina Celander, Frankie Cordero and Yoko Myoi translate stunningly as an extension of their puppet-characters themselves, rather than the other way around. It’s almost like the performers personify an unseen energy force that could be imagined existing around all living things, again inducing the richness and spirit of Hawaiian culture. The four puppeteers maneuver the three main characters Ko’olau, Pi’ilani, and their young son Kaleimanu, while also embodying minimalist “extras” and scenery elements, becoming mountains or other obstacles for the characters to interact with on the otherwise empty stage.
The hand-carved wooden puppets themselves are economic, with faces like blank canvases for the performers to somehow enliven with their actions, which they do. Styled after Hawaiian woodcuts by Lee, the rough-hewn faces are also interesting in the context of Hansen’s Disease (better known as leprosy), as they appear somewhat mask-like with an ability to project either some kind of disfigurement or its inevitable covering.
Another element utilized to help tell the story is a large screen backdrop upon which live shadow and video are projected, adding even more dimension. Lee and Miranda Hardy, the lighting designer and shadow projectionist, used fascinating techniques like shooting through water, overlaying paper cutouts and other materials to achieve distinct perspectives, incorporating live shadow figures, and using a kind of revolving cutout carousel for background action and special effects. These also highlighted the lush scenery and rough territory of the island, again calling back the story’s intrinsic tie to the natural world. I was so interested in how these images were being created from a technical perspective, that I was often watching their production emanating from just in front of the stage, which might have taken me a bit out of the story at times, though I’m not sure all viewers would find this as distracting. It’s clear that much is being communicated, but it didn’t always completely wash over me as much as experiencing the intimacy of the puppetry and being affected by the music did.
Lee, who is of Chinese-American and Eastern European descent, grew up on the island of O’ahu, where he first heard the story of Ko’olau through a family friend. The tale had also once captured the imagination of adventurer/author Jack London, who wrote a short story, Koolau the Leper, in 1909, in which he co-opted it into a rather horrific and sensationalist interpretation. Lee’s piece as a response to London, attempting to return a sense of dignity, compassion, and celebration to the doomed, yet heroic characters is certainly successful, even if just a bit more development and integration could bring it to the seamless and encompassing Aloha that it’s very close to reaching.